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How to Make a Hollandaise Sauce

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for taking a few culinary ‘shortcuts’, as long as it doesn’t sacrifice quality or freshness. I’m not running a fine dining establishment here. I’m running a home, with two very small and busy masters at my heels. I buy my French bread far more often that I make it. I rarely cook my own stock. I never pick my own crab meat. But, there are a few things that I’m a little stubborn about. Hollandaise sauce is one of those things. I don’t make hollandaise sauce very often; a few times a year, at most. I definitely don’t make it often enough to be really proficient at it. 90% of the time, I fight to keep it from separating. It’s tempting to turn to one of many easy, no-fail hollandaise recipes out there. But, despite my repeated challenges with this buttery-lemony sauce, I insist upon making it the traditional way. I figure that I’ll never get good at it if I don’t practice when I have the opportunity.

Hollandaise is a finicky sauce. Essentially, it involves creating and maintaining two separate emulsions. Forming an emulsion is like joining two parties who don’t want to be together, like oil and water, and coercing them to live together in peaceful harmony. In a hollandaise sauce, the first step involves creating an emulsion of egg yolks with water and lemon juice, called a sabayon (pronounced sa-ba-yawn). In the second step, the sabayon is joined with clarified butter to create a rich, buttery sauce. Cook the eggs a little too long or a little too hot in the first step and you’ll have scrambled eggs. Add the butter too quickly in the second step and the emulsion will separate into a buttery mess. There’s an entire science behind the creation of emulsions in this sauce, but I won’t go there. Suffice it to say, hollandaise is a cruel, cruel mistress; misleadingly simple in some respects, yet so fickle, but so lusciously satisfying.

All that said, making this sauce is doable and definitely worth it. If the sauce breaks, which mine do frequently, it’s usually fixable. Just don’t overcook and curdle the egg yolks. There is no saving a curdled sabayon, other than starting over.

The following step by step guide is adapted from the technique I learned at French Culinary Institute, with a few modifications based on my experience. This recipe will produce about 1 cup of Hollandaise Sauce, which is delicious on Eggs Benedict, over asparagus, seafood, or with steak.

You will need:

  • A Saucepan with an inch or two of water
  • A Bowl, which is big enough to sit on top of the saucepan
  • A Whisk
  • 2 Egg Yolks
  • 1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
  • 1 Tbsp Water
  • 5 ounces of warm Clarified Butter
  • Salt
  • Cayenne Pepper

Before beginning, check to make sure that your bowl fits with your pot. It should rest on the top of the pot, above the water and without touching the water. This allows the eggs to cook gently and slowly from the indirect heat of the steam. This set-up is known as a bain-marie, or double boiler.

Place two egg yolks in a bowl.

Add 1 Tbsp lemon juice and 1 Tbsp water to the bowl. Whisk the egg yolks with the water and lemon until they begin to get foamy and pale yellow.

Bring an inch or two of water to a very gentle simmer. Place the bowl above the simmering water. Begin whisking immediately and continuously.

I recommend wearing an oven mitt on your non-whisking hand throughout this process so that you can easily lift the bowl as needed to better control the heat. If you begin to notice the eggs cooking too quickly, lift the bowl from the heat and continue whisking. Lower the heat, if necessary.Then, return the bowl to the pot. It's also a good idea to keep a bowl of icy water nearby during this step. If your eggs are cooking too quickly, you can dip the bottom of the egg bowl into the icy water to slow the cooking. If your eggs begin to look clumpy, they've curdled. If this happens, start over with new eggs. The sauce will not emulsify with curdled eggs.

Continue whisking over the steam until the yolks become thick enough that the whisk leaves a trail which holds for a couple seconds. Remove the bowl from the heat.

Place the bowl onto a towel for stability. Then, very slowly begin whisking in the warm (not hot) clarified butter. Start with just a few drops of butter at a time gradually building up to a stream, whisking continuously. The sauce should begin thickening to a mayonnaise-like consistency. Stop adding butter if it seems that the sauce can't take anymore. If it becomes too thick, add a few drops of warm water at a time and whisk until it reaches your desired consistency.

Season with salt (about 1/8 - 1/4 tsp) and a dash of cayenne pepper.

The finished sauce is best served immediately, but if necessary, it can be kept warm for about hour or so by placing it over of a pot of warm water.

If the sauce begins to look like a buttery mess instead of smooth and creamy, then it has broken. Stop adding butter. Try whisking in a few drops of cold water to reestablish the emulsion.


4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Your Garden

  2. Pingback: Brunch – It’s the meal that comes with a Mimosa « The Gourmand Mom

  3. Fantastic tutorial! I know how tricky this is but I’d love to try it soon!if you wont mind I’d love to guide Foodista readers to this post.Just add the foodista widget to the end of this post and it’s all set, Thanks!

    • Yup…it’s a bit tricky, but definitely not impossible! I think it’s the kind of thing that gets easier the more you do it, because you become better at recognizing when the eggs are cooked just right or when it’s had enough butter. Plus, you become better at gauging how to control the heat, etc. Let me know how it goes if you decide to give it a try!


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